Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Penelope Cruz
Extras: Commentary Track, Music Video, Talent Files, Trailer

I was working in the book business when Louis de Bernières novel, "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin," first came out and I can attest to the fact that it created quite a stir and was widely read by all types of people who would have typically shied away from that type of literate fiction. Equal parts travelogue, romance, and war story, the novel quickly shot up the bestseller lists. Not surprisingly the book was made into a movie and that movie is now available on DVD from Universal.

"Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" features a cast of very solid performers and is directed by John Madden whose "Shakespeare in Love" featured a similarly unique romantic tale. Filmed on location in Greece, the movie is a visual delight that manages to follow the book fairly well with but a few inconsistencies and casting problems to mar what is otherwise a very solid romantic drama.

On the peaceful island of Cephallonia the war that is engulfing the globe in the early 1940s seems like it’s a world away until Mussolini begins to dream of a resurgent Roman Empire. While the Greeks are initially successful in pushing back the invading Italians, the Germans soon step in and crush the feeble resistance.

A small force of Italian soldiers is sent to occupy Cephalonia. Led by Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), this artillery unit epitomizes the stereotype of the Italian soldier — they would rather wine, dine, sing and make love than fight a war (and who could blame them?).

Corelli takes up residence at the house of Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) where he falls madly in love with his daughter, Pelagia (Penélope Cruz). She returns his feelings but her hand has already been promised to Mandras (Christian Bale), a local fisherman who went off to fight in the war and has now returned home to take part in the resistance movement.

While this personal struggle plays out, the Italians surrender to the invading Allies and it seems for a time that the island might just return to normal. But the Germans aren’t so eager to give up what they’ve gained and they send a force to occupy the island and subjugate anyone who stands in their way be they native Greek citizens or Italian soldiers.

"Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" is a breathtaking visual achievement and cinematographer John Toll should be given an award by the Greek government for all the tourism his photography is likely to inspire. Director John Madden manages somehow to keep the scenery from overcoming the story and characters and Shawn Solvo’s screenplay is faithful enough to the book to raise no objections.

The major gripe that most reviewers have with the film is the casting. When Nicolas Cage appears on screen strumming a mandolin and singing his own songs with an awful Italian accent it’s very difficult for the audience not to be pulled out of the moment. His Captain Corelli is actually quite good save for the accent. Would anybody really have cared if he had just ditched it?

The surrounding cast is also solid with Penélope Cruz offering up her usual smoldering performance and John Hurt pulling off his role with great aplomb. My big gripe is that all of the major roles are given to non-Greek actors while the rest of the cast features an all-Greek crew. The end result is that the major players don’t look like they really belong.

Minor nitpicking aside, I found "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" to be a wonderfully engaging story that resists the urge of too many such historical romances to become overly saccharine and self-reverent. This is a love story set against a very realistic (if not necessarily historically accurate) backdrop of war.

Presented with a 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer, "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" is among the finest looking DVDs I’ve had the pleasure to watch. The overall image is quite filmlike and is not overly or artificially sharp. There is some edge enhancement visible but it’s very slight and only appears in high contrast scenes. Colors are beautifully rendered and so saturated as to appear larger than life — befitting the setting in which the film takes place. Black levels are solid as well with the nighttime scenes full of fine shadow detail. In addition, there are no physical blemishes, compression artifacts, or defects of any sort. This is as close to a trip to the Greek isles as many of us are ever likely to take.

Audio is presented in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> and <$DTS,DTS> <$5.1,5.1 mix>es as well as a French DD 5.1 track. The soundtrack here rivals the high quality of the video and is incredibly immersive. Surrounds are active from beginning to end with everything from subtle atmospheric effects to the roar of aircraft flying overhead. Dynamic range is also impressive with clear highs and a fair amount of deep bass. The one weakness is that this glorious audio experience threatens to overwhelm the dialogue in a number of scenes and turning up the volume only exacerbates the problem. But, for the most part, "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" sounds very good from start to finish.

As for the Dolby Digital vs. DTS issue, this is one of those instances in which I could discern very little difference and only my built-in preference for DTS swayed me in that direction.

While not a full-blown special edition, this DVD does offer a few bonus features. First up is a running commentary with director John Madden. Like his track for "Shakespeare in Love," this one is full of detail and reinforces the impression that he’s a generous director when it comes to spreading accolades. Here we learn much about the island the movie was filmed on and the liberties taken with the book are explained at length. This is a solid and entertaining commentary although there are frequent gaps of silence and Madden’s voice tends toward a monotone.

Rounding out the extras are a music video for Russell Watson’s "Ricordo Ancor (Pelagia’s Song)," the film’s original theatrical trailer, talent files, and a few pages of production notes. If any film could have benefited from some behind-the-scenes footage this is it as shots of the present-day island without the 1940s set decorations would have been quite interesting.

"Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" never seemed to find an audience at the theater which is quite surprising considering its headlining cast, wonderful setting, and the fact that the book it was based on was an international bestseller. I was intrigued from the moment I first saw the film’s trailer but, seemingly like everyone else, I too stayed away from the theater.

At any rate, Universal’s new DVD provides an excellent chance for fans of fine romantic dramas to make amends at long last and check out this wonderful film for themselves. While certainly not without its problems, the visually stunning "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" nevertheless manages to remain entertaining. The DVD itself features a sumptuous video transfer, a very solid audio presentation, and a few meager extras. Well worth at least a rental, the DVD is a must-buy for fans of Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Toll’s handiwork. Come for the pretty pictures, stay for the story, and don’t let that bad accent get under your skin.